Geek Comedy

There's a reason why A Thousand Clowns is a perennial favorite with theater companies across the country. Herb Gardner's dark comedy is a wonderful piece of writing, with lively characters and a perfect blend of good-time yuks and hard-knock commentary. Arizona Jewish Theatre Company is closing its season--which honored Jewish American playwrights--with an imperfect production of Gardner's oft-visited comedy that still shines on the merits of several superb performances.

This A Thousand Clowns suffers from some titled directorial choices and a script that, in its celebration of individualism, is somewhat dated. But Gardner's comic take on the crass workaday world still glows with anger and some gleefully funny sarcasm.

It's inevitable that Gardner's view of the horrors of homogeneity should seem quaint today. In the conventional 1950s and early 1960s, when American men were either aggressive breadwinners or total losers, nonconformity was the worst kind of rebellion. Today, slacking is a more feasible lifestyle, and Gardner's story plays like an oldfangled tale of our hero's moral victories.

Murray Burns (Ben Tyler) is fighting to retain custody of his young nephew, Nick (Donnie Benjamin), who was abandoned by his mother, Murray's sister, several years before. The boy (one of those wiseacre geniuses who, thankfully, only show up in stage comedies) is content to live in a divey studio with a shiftless uncle who's usually broke. Murray's recently left a lucrative gig as a children's television writer, opting instead to while away his afternoons at bargain matinees or at the docks, waving to strangers on departing cruise ships. He occasionally sends his charge to a neighbor's house while he "conducts business" with the dame du jour. But investigators from the Child Welfare Board catch wind of Murray's zany parenting techniques, and, unless he cleans up his act, Nick will be shipped off to a foster home.

Murray accepts an offer from his former employer, Chuckles the Chipmunk (Jon Gentry), the odious star of a kids' TV show to which Murray was recently shackled. Murray despises Chuckles, his program and most forms of work, but he's willing to relinquish his freedom rather than lose his nephew.

He's aided by Sandy (Martha Brooks), who's sent to determine whether Murray is a suitable parent but stays to become his latest fling. Everyone pitches in to help Murray keep the kid: Sandy redecorates the apartment; Murray's talent-agent brother arranges job interviews; the kid practically kills himself acting "normal." While the wind-up suggests that everyone gets what they want, Gardner is generous enough to let us decide. His characters tend to be one-dimensional, either tight-assed finks or lazy clowns. But these often-predictable folks say the darnedest things, and anyone who's ever ducked into a movie house rather than looking for work will appreciate Murray's inert attitude toward finding a job.

Although a playwright pal of mine later referred to this production as "A Thousand Hours," the play doesn't dawdle. Its flaw is director Jim Linde's failure to make a clear distinction between the grown-ups and the goons. In Act One, everyone but Murray is meant to be a right-wing loony: the super-bright kid; the conservative social workers; the well-meaning, long-suffering agent/brother. Just before the first act curtain, when Murray decides to swallow his pride and get a job, the others are meant to take on Murray's former lunacy, a notion signaled by the appearance of the clown at the top of the second act.

But Linde has extracted unwavering performances. The girl is over-the-top from practically her first scene; the brother remains stoic and reproachful; the boy prevails as a wet blanket--albeit a funny one--throughout.

As a result, there's no contrast to Murray's attempt at conservatism, and we're left to wonder why no one seems to notice his transformation.

On their own merits, each of these performances is nearly perfect. Tyler's deadpan delivery as Murray is wonderful, and his waggish interpretation of the role makes the instant relationship between him and Sandra seem plausible. Whether singing a duet with his young co-star or railing against authority, Tyler is in top form. He knows Murray's a jerk, but rather than make him lovable, Tyler turns him into a jovial one-man band.

In the end, we're not sure this version of Murray will get to keep the kid, but we've learned to like him, and we've watched him maintain his own corrupt kind of dignity.

Shows that depend on a kid star scare me; they can collapse under piles of preciousness or plain old lousy acting. But Benjamin, who's making his professional debut here, is neither too cute nor too tentative as whiz kid Nick. He keeps pace with Tyler, and is especially capable in scenes with Brooks, who once again demonstrates her ability to turn every gesture into a funny statement of character.

The staging doesn't benefit from Gary Imel's self-conscious set design, which depicts a sponge-painted studio that looks too carefully cluttered. And Bill Osborne might want to tweak his sound design, which finds telephones ringing from offstage and intercom voices that are clearly, but none too cleverly, thrown from behind set pieces.

Nearly 30 years after its Broadway debut, A Thousand Clowns may be little more than a reminder of a time when individualism was a daring choice. But taken at face value, it's also a darn fine comedy whose cast rarely misses an opportunity to shine.

A Thousand Clowns continues through Sunday, June 6, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela